Diagnosis of exclusion

Idiopathic [id-ee-uh-path-ik] is an adjective used primarily in medicine meaning arising spontaneously or from an obscure or unknown cause. From Greek ‘idios’ (‘one’s own’) and ‘pathos’ (‘suffering’), it means approximately ‘a disease of its own kind.’ It is technically a term from nosology, the classification of disease.

For some medical conditions, one or more causes are somewhat understood, but in a certain percentage of people with the condition, the cause may not be readily apparent or characterized. In these cases, the origin of the condition is said to be idiopathic.

With some medical conditions, the medical community cannot establish a root cause for a large percentage of all cases; with other conditions, idiopathic cases account for a small percentage. As medical and scientific advances are made with relation to a particular condition or disease, more root causes are discovered, and the percentage of cases designated ‘idiopathic’ decreases.

In his book ‘The Human Body,’ Isaac Asimov noted a comment about the term idiopathic made in the 20th edition of ‘Stedman’s Medical Dictionary’: ‘A high-flown term to conceal ignorance.’ In the American television show ‘House,’ the title character remarks that the word is ‘from the Latin, meaning: ‘We’re idiots ’cause we can’t figure out what’s causing it.” In another episode, Dr House comments, ‘[Dr] Cuddy thinks it’s idiopathic – the key words there being ‘Cuddy’ and ‘idiot,” referencing the use of the term as a cover for ignorance.

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